Alaska Can Be Fickle

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In all my trips to the biggest state I’ve learned to take what the mountains give you.  Sometimes they give you everything, sometimes nothing.  This year I spent a month in Alaska on two separate trips.  On one we nearly got everything, on the other nothing.

The cheapest way to get all your gear from the Anchorage airport to wherever you are headed in Alaska is by U-Haul.  Our mountain of climbing, skiing, and living gear made it through the weighing process and onto the tarmac at the Talkeetna airport. Next thing I knew we were on the best flight I’ve ever had into a mountain range.  Clear blue skies over head, and light clouds swirling around the jagged peaks of the Alaska Range kept my attention as we flew towards the Thunder Glacier.

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The Thunder Glacier, an arm of the famous Kahiltna, is cold.  It feels like a hole surrounded by massive rock walls.  The sun only shows itself on the glacial floor for a few hours a day.  We cursed the walls for stealing our warmth, but admired their sheer size and beauty.  On an adjacent face of one of these walls was our main objective.  The west face of Thunder Mountain.  

Getting to the west face ended up being a rather complicated affair.  For three days we made slow headway in finding a route through crevasse fields, steep ridgelines and under huge seracs.  Finally on the fourth day we found ourselves under the massive face and started up.  After a few airy moves to clear the bergshrund we found great booting for a few thousand feet.  Everything felt like it was going to work out.

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Then the mountains decided different.  About 300 feet from the summit the face changed aspect ever so slightly and we found only a few inches of rotten snow over a slick rock slab.  Not a very comfortable position to be in a few thousand feet above the floor.  After a few attempts to get over this problem we decided to listen to the mountain and transitioned to skis.  It’s always hard to turn around when the top is literally within reach, but that is how the game is played, especially in the high peaks of Alaska.  

All was not lost however.  There was still 3,000 feet of incredibly aesthetic skiing to be had.  Below our feet was the main Kahiltna Glacier and its massive icefall.  On the other side was Mt, Foraker which would dwarf anything in the lower 48.  Even though we did not summit the peak the turns we did have on the west face of Thunder Mountain were some of the best I’ve ever had.

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My second trip was into the Tordrillo Range west of Anchorage.  Our trusty U-Haul brought us from Talkeetna to the Anchorage bush plane strip with a quick shower on the way.  This trip had no real objective other than to ski as much steep pow as we could find.  The weather had other ideas though.

The day we flew into the glacier has a little fuzzy.  Light clouds were in and out all day.  We set up camp and hoped to find blue skis the next day.  The blue skies never came.  For the next two weeks I gave my liver an amazing workout while sitting in our big domed group tent.  It never really snowed hard, but also never cleared up enough to see more than 10 feet out of camp.  Frustrating to say the least.

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We played cards, drank slushy beer, read, drank whiskey, walked laps around camp, slept, drank snogaritas (tequila, crystal light, snow), yelled at the clouds, and resigned ourselves to not skiing.  One half day window allowed us to get onto some low angle slopes near camp, but it was more of a tease than anything else.  

After two weeks of tent time we got a weather forecast that gave us one day of good weather followed by more snow.  We pulled the plug and used our one sunny day to get our flight back to Anchorage.  These two trips into the Alaskan Ranges were polar opposites.  On one I got some of the best turns I’ve ever had on an amazing mountain.  On the other I only got a handful of turns and a lot of drinking.  So goes expeditions in Alaska.

By: Anton Sponar      


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